Donald O. Clifton, PH.D. was a psychologist and business executive whose life’s work was based on a single question, “what will happen when we think about what is right with people rather than fixating on what is wrong with them?”
Clifton believed that everyone has talent – special abilities that come naturally to us in our innate ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving – and that those unique talents are the key to finding our purpose and maximizing our potential in both work and life.
He believed that if this simple notion of focusing on what’s right instead of what’s wrong with people was applied to our everyday lives, we could be more productive, successful, and fulfilled.
This approach is called strengths-based development and today, Donald O. Clifton is recognized as the father of strengths-based psychology and the grandfather of positive psychology.
Since our talents influence our decisions and guide our activities, they also explain why some things come more easily to us than others. We are all built for a purpose and it’s up to us to uncover it using our talents as clues.
We’d never expect a racehorse to pull a sleigh, nor a driving horse to excel in jumping. They just aren’t made for that! And while those horses may be physically able to complete the mis-matched tasks, we accept that they wouldn’t be able to consistently produce excellent results.
The key to benefitting from your talents is being aware of them and using them intentionally. When you are in tune with your talent, harnessing and practicing them consciously like tools in a toolbox, you can achieve consistently outstanding results – what Clifton defined as a ‘strength’.
What’s equally fascinating about the research is that the same source of power and edge – your raw talent - can also be your greatest form of distraction and detriment. That’s because our natural talents and tendencies left unchecked can lead us astray.
I like to think about talent like a wild horse. Another term for a wild horse is a mustang, from the Spanish word ‘mustango’ meaning an ownerless beast, or stray.
These small, but sturdy equines are resilient, just like our talents and tendencies that stay with us over time. Properly nurtured and trained, mustangs can be great riding horses and have faired well in competition.
Like our friend the wild horse, you may be able to run the fastest, or jump the highest, but if it goes unharnessed the mustang could end up grazing in the grass or running off-course, instead of finishing the race.
It’s possible that you could be taking your own talents for granted because they seem ordinary to you. Be warned - this lack of self knowledge threatens your positive outcomes:
• If you are skilled at finding trends and patterns, beware that over-analysis doesn’t keep you from acting on opportunities while they are still timely and relevant.
• If you are skilled at developing relationships, be careful that you don’t make deals at the cost of profit.
• If you are skilled at coming up with brilliant new ideas, beware being distracted from producing a tangible output.
The same way a shortage of talent in a given area can cause problems, these examples of talent misapplied result in what Clifton would call a ‘weakness’.
It’s up to you to saddle up that wild horse, take the reigns, and harness your raw talents into mature strengths. When you do, you’ll have the winning formula to cross the finish line with the flair and distinction of a thoroughbred winning the Triple Crown.
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